Dispelling the Myth of Panama’s “Pancake” in the Mountains to Santiago

Uphill AheadAs the pale rays of early dawn cascaded in through the screen of my tent, I found myself listening to the gurgling river nearby while laying languorously within and watching sunlit particles drift dreamily through the still air above the tall-grass outside.  Sometimes on mornings like this one, the physical desire had not quite provoked me to rise and prepare for the day’s journey, but the wisdom of many other such mornings reminded me that there would be no going back to sleep now and that within less than an hour the stifling heat would swell to an overwhelming level and envelope my small encampment in a blaze of humid jungle calefaction.  I was also set to meet my new friend Fatima in the town of Penonome the following day and was therefore determined to reach the halfway point today, a large town called Santiago in the Southern bend of the narrow country, and knew that I had many miles ahead of me if I was still to follow through on this goal.  What I didn’t know at the time was that Panama was not in fact “flat as a pancake,” as one gentleman had tried to inform me whilst in Costa Rica, but that I was on the brink of embarking on one of the most egregiously planned legs of my journey, traveling almost seventy-five miles through relentless tropical mountains of the sweltering Panamanian interior – and all in just one day.

Nonetheless, I had no idea what was in store for me as I began packing my bags and preparing to say bon voyage to my steamy riverside campground.  Despite the nagging soreness throughout my legs, I whistled a little tune, pushed my bike out towards the main road, waved goodbye to the friendly staff of the restaurant as I passed, and began making my way  Eastward.  Fortunately that first stretch of road was well sheltered beneath the leafy canopy of the leafy foliage high above, and I found myself quite pleased to be making my steady progress through such lush surroundings.  I had been at it long before, no more than an hour, when I encountered a military checkpoint, and although they normally found no reason to hassle me, I knew that it was really all just a question of luck.  A few moments later, there I was unpacking half of the contents of my bag alongside the Panamericana.  Yet the check proved uneventful, and I could see that the inspection officer was in fact just lonely and bored and more than happy to interrogate me with a series of questions unrelated to national security, but more so to break up the monotony of the torrid morning heat.

After finally shaking free from the clutches of my entertainment custody, I pedaled onward, however the landscape took a very sudden turn.  As the dense jungle fronds began to gave way to vibrant lime green fields and pasturelands, I realized that my pace had slowed significantly and that I was now on a steady ascent out of the jungle and into a set of rolling hills.  As was the case with that one first day after crossing the Costa Rican border into Panama, I felt an insipid weakness tugging at me and my leaden legs seemed to refuse to propel me higher at any rate faster than a crawl.  As I had not had breakfast that morning, and had only had a light meal in the late afternoon of the day before, I rationalized that it must be fuel related and told myself that I would stop for breakfast at the next roadside comedor (usually a small, shack-like restaurant) that I passed.  About fifteen minutes later, at the turn-off for a tiny indigenous village called Tole, I spotted the only building which I had seen in miles – and thankfully, it just happened to serve food.

Ridge-Top VistaAs luck would have it though, things weren’t going in my favor, and as I sat at the counter, completely drenched and dripping from sweat, mentally pleading for a tall, cold beverage, the insolent young lady who was working that day took great pleasure in instead ignoring my requests and thus tormenting me.  Literally fifteen minutes passed by in this manner, and finally, when I could take no more and was fuming now both on the inside as well as the outside, I decided that no matter how wretched I felt I was still a gentleman of principles and refused to patronize such an establishment.  So I took my tired ass back on the road and prayed that I would indeed find something else soon, preferably before I collapsed from heatstroke and undernourishment beneath the tormenting sun which grew ever higher into the sky.

My prayers were jubilantly answered when I spotted a truck stop not more than twenty minutes up the road and pulled in with the expectations of a big healthy plate of grub.  Ok, so honestly, the food was real crap, but at least after putting something into my system and replenishing my stock of water, I was ready to make progress again, and hopefully this time to pick up the pace.  About an hour later you could say I was in full swing again, however the only irony was that I was plugging away on steep uphills and consistently averaging less than ten miles per hour.  Yet to make matters somewhat tolerable, each uphill segment would only last anywhere from fifteen minutes to forty minutes and was always met with a soaring downhill reprieve.  Then again, I should also mention that this continued onwards for the next four hours or so, and I remember at one point looking out across the horizon from the crest of one such mountaintop and thinking to myself that there was indeed no end in sight.

So you’d think that I’d be used to this type of situation, this kind of intimidating feeling by now, right?  Well, tell that to my poor, aching legs, because they still don’t seem to understand.  Its also somewhat funny the way that the human mind works in that, before the crest of every hill, as I sit there plodding away and pushing with all my might, I’m always dreaming that there’s the town just over yonder, that I’ll reach the peak and look down upon my day’s destination just waiting for me with open shower and a loving meal – often even when I know I’m not yet halfway there.  But that doesn’t mean that I enjoy it any less!  No matter how difficult the journey, living symbiotically beside the pain and torture and anguish is hope and desperation… oh and the miraculous places to where I travel and people with whom I meet.  Perhaps even more precious to my memory as well are the unforgettable events that come to pass with almost every day on the road.

Its a Steep One...Well, after several hours of trudging up hills and flying back down, I felt that I was reaching my limit (both in terms of nourishment and stamina) and decided to stop for a quick bite to eat, to let my muscles relax, and to see if I couldn’t wrangle some information on the remaining distance out of the shop-keep.  I sat in the only chair in the little open sided tienda, watching the hundreds of flies swarm lazily around a heap of old bananas and talking to the candid woman who owned the store about the social and political crises of the nation and life in the countryside.  Aside from chatting about the fact that Panama was still a U.S. colony (yeah, welcome to the club Panama), she also told me about the recent skyrocket in food prices, the severe unemployment levels (who publishes those national statistics, anyway…?), disparagingly high poverty levels, and the governments lack of support or interest in rural Panama (meanwhile investing in multimillion dollar ocean-front parks and roadways along the wealthy coastal strip of Panama City).  It was quite a sobering discussion, and, helped me to remember that were it not for cycling, I would never be given these windows into the non-urban and non-touristic perspectives that form the true opinions of exploited and manipulated nations the world over, and which most others never know exist and often never care to see.

After half an hour of insight into the politics of which most television news never sheds its light, I thanked the woman and left in a somber yet pensive mood.  This, however, was not only due to the conversation that we had had, but also to the knowledge that I had just gained of the massive mesa climb which was to greet me less than a kilometer up the road.  I felt that my endurance was completely depleted, but I also had no other choice but to put myself through the brutal torture of heading onward, as I had made a commitment to Fatima to arrive the next day and my midpoint of Santiago was only another fifteen miles away.  After my break my knees felt like rusty hinges and thighs seared in pain, but I pointed my bicycle towards the base of the mesa, which was now growing nearer in the distance, and just reminded myself that there would be a cold shower and a warm bed waiting for me when I arrived.

Finally, I had covered the half mile to the beginning of the ascent.  I took a deep breath, prayed (whimpered pitifully) for the strength to carry on, and next thing I knew was on my way up.  It was a dreadfully slow, almost motionless climb, but as I heard the hazy yellow horizon shatter with the sound of thunder I turned to look behind me and saw the inky clouds closing in on me.  This was the last straw, I had been through enough today and I refused to let this storm beat me.  As the blinding flashes of lightning blasted through the sky and bleached out all color for an ephemeral moment, it was as though the starting gunshot of a race had been fired and my heart leapt into throbbing action.  The burst of adrenaline pulsed through my body, breathing my limps to life, and my energy instantly returned.  I put all of my weight down into the resistant uphill inhibited pedals and quickly doubled my speed.  Within fifteen minutes I realized that I was nearing the plateau of the mesa and I inhaled sharply in exhilaration.

The Dark StormBut the race was not over.  I swung my head around with a fire in my eyes, looking to the storm like a winged Dracula blotting out the sky and chasing after my chariot in the fading twilight, and I knew that it was time for action.  From some unknown reserve I had pulled the fullest force of my body to the forefront and my beast leapt forward along the road, the sighing brush and feigning grass whizzing by at my sides.  I could feel the roaring thunder licking at the back of my neck as I flew along the flat mesa-top, squinting my eyes against the strobing lightning flashes.  I was going to beat this – and I was going to make it to Santiago faster than I could have ever gone before.

The first sporadic drops of rainfall pattered menacingly upon the bare skin of my arms and face, but only thrust me forward with yet more vigor.  Onward and onward, seconds turned into minutes, and minutes into a fleeting eternity.  I know not for how long this carried on, but after what must have been almost an hour of this frenzied drive through the low scrubby mesa lands, I ventured to look behind me yet again and realized that the storm had disappeared far behind me in the somber late afternoon sky.  A wry grin crept across my lips as I turned my vision back towards the road ahead, a feeling of triumph and satisfaction coursing through my veins.  Then, as if to reward me, the signs of civilization began to appear – there I was, Santiago.

I pedaled forward along the sides of the now somewhat busier streets, not sure of exactly where I would be spending the night, but nevertheless prudent as to searching for the most economic option, regardless of the creeping exhaustion that had begun to sink back into my limbs.  Although it did take me a few turns and several street-side consultations, I soon found the nondescript pensión along the main street leading into town.  It was a low, one story structure, looking like an old office building, and amazingly even more nondescript within.  However, it had exactly what I needed: running water and a mattress, and so I settled my things down on the floor and sat down for a moment.  Twenty minutes later the force of gravity had molded my body firmly into the mattress and although I could barely think or move, I did know that I could not let myself go to sleep just quite yet.  I was still covered in a sticky slime of sweat from the fantastic voyage of the day and I also couldn’t let myself slippity slide into slumber without eating something to replenish my now completely depleted body (did I mention that the only real meal of the day was the late truck-stop breakfast?).

I mustered up the remainder of my long waned strength, stumbled to my feet, and made my way to the showers before heading out on the town.  When I had repaired the aesthetic damage and rinsed away the olfactory reminders of the day’s ride, I decided to step out and see what I could see.  Aside from the instant realization that the town was the filthiest which I had ever encountered, trash almost completely carpeting every side street (which I later found out was because there had been the largest festival in Panama there two days prior), I also managed to duck into an internet kiosk to check my e’s as well as find one of the only nearby budget restaurants… which sadly, was a Pio Pio, specializing in old fashioned, deep fried chicken.  Oh well, it was low quality, but it was sustenance, and fortunately they also had a grill.  Now washed, fed, and reconnected with the outside world, I slowly made my way back towards the pensión for the final key to fulfilling my immediate satisfaction – sleep.

As I hobbled slowly, very slowly, back, I thought of how nice it would be to arrive in Penonome the following day, into the welcoming arms (ok, perhaps a bit dramatic, since I’d never met her before) of Fatima, and end my week and a half long hiatus from all familiar social interaction.  I had spent my time in Boquete so lost in my thoughts and reflection that it wasn’t until I was back on my bicycle again that I realized that a one sided existence such as that was one which I could only bear for so long before searching for social stimulus and the opportunity to laugh with others.  However, my body felt severely depleted, and even after my meal I still wondered whether my night of sleep would be enough to replenish me, but also longed that perhaps tomorrow fate would go easy on me and that what little energy I had left within me would be enough to carry me through.


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